Are the Torys Irish?

The following has been going around on social media with some querying whether it is true:

I suggest it is not. Rather than the Irish using the name Tory as an insult to the English, it appears to be an insult directed against the Irish. How ,then, did it end up as a name for an English political party?

According to The Oxford English Dictionary, the term Tory developed from a term used as an insult towards dispossessed Irish who rebelled against English settlers; then it was applied to Scottish HIghlanders who were also rebelling; and later still the term was applied to English people who objected to the exclusion of Catholics from inheriting the Crown; and finally down to a name for the current English Conservative party.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s first entry for the word Tory cites ‘the 17th’ century as its first written record when it applied to ‘dispossessed Irish’ who became outlaws and and took their revenge by ‘plundering and killing the English settlers and soldiers’.

The Irish word tóir is the word for a ‘chase’ or a ‘hunt’. The word tóraí is a ‘pursuer’ or a ‘hunter’, and the verb tóraigh is ‘to pursue, seek, search for’.

The OED further adds that the word Tory was later applied to ‘any Irish Papist or Royalist in arms.’ The latter is where we can see the English political connection.

The word was extended in time to apply to ‘robbers or bandits of other races’ which included ‘Scottish Highlanders’. A 1651 quote is of ‘…Highlanders…now betaking themselves to the High-wayes to play the Tories and Robbers.’

The capital T became a feature of the word as a nickname for the Exclusioners. These Torys were protesting the exclusion of the Catholic James, Duke of York from inheriting the English Crown. Many of his supporters were Irish, and so the word Tory became used for ‘…the most despicable Savages among the Wild Irish.’ Finally in 1681 the terms ‘Cavalier ‘ and ‘Roundhead’ were replaced by ‘Torys’ and ‘Whigs’.

So the first part of the above screenshot can be said to be mostly true, but the second part needs clarification. Yes, the term was used as an insult, and perhaps by Irish supporters of James, Duke of York, but not, as a screenshot seems to suggest’ as a general insult for ‘the English gentry’.

I hope this has been of some help to those who like me have often puzzled over the use of this everyday Irish language word as a name for an English political party. I’m not aware that the term is used pejoratively by Irish people today.

Dymphna Lonergan

Dr Dymphna Lonergan is an academic status holder at Flinders University with a long-term interest in Irish words occurring in English. She is also a member of the Tinteán editorial collective.

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